Revitalized FWD Museum Includes Racing History

Revitalized FWD Museum Includes Racing History

Auto racing is a diverse field. Some cars race in a circle, others in a straight line. Some racing cars are modified street machines, others are all-out race cars. Some races are indoors, but most are outdoors. Most race cars have rear drive, some have front-wheel drive and very few have had four-wheel-drive.

In 1980, the author was working on a book called The Complete Four Wheel Drive Manual Converting, Collecting, Restoring & Repairing. We took a short trip to the FWD Museum in Clintonville, Wis. FWD stands for Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. – the outfit that invented America’s first four-wheel-drive system.

The history of FWD was covered in the book’s second chapter, “The Company That Backed into History.” It talked about the military vehicles that FWD built for World War I and about FWD snow plows. It discussed FWD fire engines and told the story of two racing cars housed in the FWD Museum.

Harry Miller built the 1930s FWD racing car. This came about after Walter Olen persuaded FWD’s directors that they should enter a car in the Indy 500. Olen was a lawyer who turned FWD into an established company after machinists Otto Zachow and William Besserdich invented a U-joint that made it possible to power all four wheels of a vehicle at once. WWI military-vehicle production put FWD on the international map. By 1930, things were humming.

Revitalized FWD Museum Includes Racing History
Left: Harvey Firestone. Center: Walter Olen. Right: Henry Ford.

The FWD Special race car was a promising machine with a 300-hp Miller V-8. Its top speed was estimated at 175 mph. Wisconsin native Harry Miller and famed race driver Barney Oldfield were put in charge of the Indy car. It was raced at Indy by Bob McDonough in 1932 and by Frank Brisko in1933.

In 1934, the V-8 was replaced with a four-cylinder engine. Brisko started the race that year, but an oil leak sprayed him with hot lubricant. Rex Mays took over and finished 9th at an average speed of 98.7-mph. Mauri Rose drove the car in 1935. He was third when a broken manifold stud put him out on the 177th lap.

In 1936, Rose drove again and placed third in the 500. He probably would have won the race if it weren’t for a limit placed on the size of the gas tank. Late in the contest, Rose was forced to stop for fuel and the other cars lapped him.

In 1948, William F. Milliken Jr., a scientist at the Cornell University Aeronautical Laboratory, borrowed the car to do research on four-wheel-drive vehicle handling characteristics. Milliken entered it in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) races. In 1950, he entered Vermont’s Equinox Mountain Hill Climb and set a national record for the event. The car returned to the original FWD Museum and was later sold to a man who has a car collection in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The second racing car with links to FWD is the “Butterball Special.” It has a 4425cc 380-hp Steyr aircraft engine that can move it along at 150 mph. The car was built by Englishman A.J. Butterworth. He crashed it in 1951 and sold it to Milliken, who then raced the four-wheel-drive car from the fall of 1952 until the fall of 1957. It was then shipped to the FWD Museum, where it has been ever since.

Revitalized FWD Museum Includes Racing History
The “Butterball Special.”

When we visited the FWD Museum in 1980, it was a very small collection housed in the tiny old Zachow and Besserdich machine shop. That building is still part of the collection today, but the FWD Museum is in the process of moving into a much larger facility in Clintonville where the wonderful FWD-Seagrave archives (FWD bought Seagrave Fire Trucks in the 1960s) will have a great new home. The vehicle collection itself has increased from 13 units to nearly 60 units.

The man spearheading the expansion and reorganization of the collection is car enthusiast Mark Thomas, who was born in Clintonville and now resides in Birmingham, Mich. Thomas recently gave RacingJunk an exclusive tour of the new museum, which is located in a former Topp-Stewart Tractor Co. factory.

For racing fans, the Butterball Special will be on display, along with many photos and a great deal of historical documentation related to it and the 1930s FWD Special racing car. The museum is operated by the Four Wheel Drive Foundation, 79 8TH St., Clintonville, WI 54929. Internet users can visit for information about the hours of operation.

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About John Gunnell 139 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

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